It’s Bryant’s third playoff closeout loss in five years by 30 points or more. It’s a series where he couldn’t maintain his hot start in Game 1 nor deliver in the fourth quarter with his usual heroics. Now Bryant and his team are staring at the potential end of the Lakers’ dominance.
It’s pretty much time for pundits and fans to overreact and lose common sense. If one series can leave a bad stain on a career, there are a slew of champions who’d be defined by failure.
This series speaks to one thing. The Lakers are old, unbalanced and inconsistent. If anything, you can blame Bryant being caught by Father Time and showing signs of vulnerability despite still being a Top-10 player this season.
Bryant couldn’t attack the rim as much as he used to. The Mavericks made him a jump shooter and on knees that have logged 15 seasons and seven trips to the NBA Finals, it was impossible to expect him to do more.
We aren’t used to seeing Bryant less than superman. Maybe you’d have to go back to his rookie year and those infamous air balls against Utah in the 1997 playoffs. We’ve been so used to his brilliant dunks, acrobatic moves and clutch performances that seeing him look merely good by his standards is jarring.
Did Kobe Bryant's legacy take a hit after being swept by the Mavericks?
Yet this series will not define his career or his legacy. Bryant will go down as one of the greatest Lakers in history and one of the Top 10 or 15 players to ever play in the NBA. He’ll be one of the faces of the post-Jordan era and he has stamped his mark as a great sidekick and a great leader.
To judge him by the Michael Jordan standard of never losing an NBA Finals or never being blown out of a closeout game is silly. Until 1991, Jordan himself barely measured up to Isiah Thomas, much less Magic Johnson or Larry Bird.
Nobody judges Magic harshly for losing in the 1991 NBA Finals to a more dominant Chicago Bulls team or being swept out of the playoffs in his 1996 comeback. Even Jordan’s legacy may be a bit tarnished by his 2001-03 comeback but he’s still remembered more for his successes.
Tim Duncan exited the playoffs this year in similar inglorious fashion after being outplayed by both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ended his career in a sweep to the Detroit Pistons in the 1989 Finals after he averaged a meek 10.1 points and 4.5 rebounds on the year.
Bryant’s former partner in crime, Shaquille O’Neal, is seeing his once dominant career ending with him as a ring chaser and a role player. Few people remember that O'Neal saw several of his early teams swept out of the playoffs before he became a four-time champion.
None of the players I mentioned will see those ignoble ends ruin their Hall of Fame career even if it hurts us as fans to watch.
Kobe Bryant has given us a decade full of postseason memories and while this series leaves a bad taste in our mouths, it’s foolish to say that it overshadows the career of the player we’ve grown to remember.
The only flaw perhaps is that Kobe has had trouble inspiring players to consistently rise with him and while some of that may be on him, it also reflects the players who lacked that fear to not let him down. Maybe Bryant is too intense for them. Unlike other NBA legends, he can’t consistently inspire his teammates to play with him and when his team needed a reassuring presence to bring them back together, Kobe couldn’t do it.
Of course, that wasn’t the case when he led the Lakers to back-to-back titles. His growth as a leader was universally hailed as a key reason they were able to hoist the trophy. But as always the case, leaders are analyzed far more sharply in defeat than in victory.
So no, the loss to Dallas doesn’t reflect badly on his career. Like Duncan, it’s a bad ending and possibly the start of his eventual decline. But to suggest it’s anything else is shortsighted and a case of selective memory.